Revelation (Demons Of The Past 01) – Chapter 23
“Evaluation you ready for are,” Dr. Sooovickalassa said.
That was, in a way, a relief. The past few days had been filled with hidden tension — tension mostly on my part, but I sensed there was some for the R’Thann exile as well. Given the conversation I’d partly overheard, I wasn’t surprised. Failure to produce the desired results and an inclination to arguing was something that the monster called Shagrath probably didn’t tolerate well, and even if he had to keep playing a human role, there wasn’t much doubt that Sooovickalassa’s career and possibly life were entirely in Shagrath’s hands.
Still, since I didn’t know what effect these tests might have, I couldn’t help but look nervously at the “evaluation tank”. It was a sort of ovoid shell which opened on each narrow end to reveal a seat, surrounded by probes and sensors and other less identifiable contact elements. “What exactly are we going to evaluate today?”
“Stability, control, focus baseline telepathic today evaluated,” the scaly doctor replied. Someday I might figure out the exact rules by which he selected the words, but I suspected I’d never quite get it perfect. Waving in a grand gesture at the evaluation tank, Dr. Sooovickalassa went on to explain that the tank was designed to create total isolation of the target mind and the evaluating mind, permitting measurement of the specific actions taken by the target and their resulting effects on the evaluator and the target. It also protected the evaluator from attempted attacks or other possible hostile actions, based on parameters set by the evaluator. There was also a simple external monitor with an automated trigger in case of certain events — for example, Dr. Sooovickalassa said in a tone that indicated it was possibly a warning as well as a description, it was relatively easy to detect the pattern of an attempt to control the evaluator, and this would trigger a full area psiscreen, an alarm, and possibly worse depending on the exact event.
“I see. So if the treatment had rendered me insane and I tried to grab hold of your mind to make sure you wouldn’t give me away… I’d give myself away.”
“Understand situation good to see do you,” he affirmed. “We begin shall.”
I sat down in the target seat, seeing Dr. Sooovickalassa disappear into the other end of the ovoid. Shagrath had already left; while the tank’s shielding should prevent interference, both the Prime Monitor and the scientist wanted to take as few risks as possible. The sensor array descended gently, molding itself to my body, and everything went dark. Then Dr. Sooovickalassa spoke in my ear, obviously through a microphone arrangement, and instructed me to slowly open my barriers and check to see if I could hear anything but his thoughts.
Cautiously, I did as he said. Silence. I could sense Sooovickalassa’s presence, but he had his own mindshield up — apparently he could at least manage that much psionic ability — and so his existence introduced only an incomprehensible whisper into what was otherwise dead mental silence. None of the uncountable voices I would hear when I dropped my defenses. “Nothing. I barely hear your own mind’s presence. You have a shield?”
A cripple I may be, but not dead. Of course I have a shield.
If I hadn’t been restrained by about six tons of machinery around me, I probably would’ve jumped a meter into the air. The voice had spoken in my head, sounding in tone quite like Doctor Sooovickalassa, but with perfect enunciation… and grammar, for that matter.
Of course. You are “hearing” my thoughts. Thoughts, concepts, interconnected structures of idea/action/fact. There was an undercurrent of slight amusement. As you receive these directly, they are interpreted by your mind in whatever way makes most sense to you.
You heard me?
That is the purpose of this procedure, is it not? To test your abilities and to evaluate your reactions. An impression of a deliberate smile. Being more experienced than you, I can also sense many minor impressions that you would not. For instance, your thoughtform of myself encapsulates everything from my appearance to my name — a name which you find unwieldy.
Well, I wouldn’t have put it — I answered, while realizing the potential danger if he could read stuff from me that I didn’t know I was sending.
Obviously. Your concept of courtesy, in this case, is reasonable, though many of your people’s behaviors are possibly counter to logic. I take no offense. Indeed, select a shorter version of my name for spoken conversation, if you wish; I will then be less formal in my address of you.
All right. Let me think about that for a minute. You can hear stuff I’m not sending you?
Not exactly. Not if I refrain from probing. It is more that I can extract more information than you think from what you show me. Thoughts leave impressions on thoughts. Few thoughts are simple and direct; they are usually combined with many others. You can filter out direct components and large thought-concepts, but smaller pieces and components of the large ideas you send must of necessity come through.
I sealed myself back inside my mindshield. I needed to think for a minute. The R’Thann would be watching me more than anyone else — even Shagrath. Shagrath had, at least, told some clear truths, and one of those was that he had a hundred other responsibilities and demands on his time, no matter what his ultimate purpose actually was. Sooovickalassa, on the other hand, had no other purpose outside of this project. He could be the single greatest danger I would have to deal with… or, possibly, the only ally I had. To give me a little more time, I opened for a second. Thinking about your name. It may be a bit short, but how about “Vick”? From the middle portion of your name?
A bit… short? Yes. Let me consider for a moment.
That gave me a few more seconds to consider the possibility that had suddenly presented itself. It was a sinking risky idea, but his reactions during that conversation I’d accidentally overheard might indicate that he had some scruples, and he was certainly being bullied. I heard him speak over the intercom, ignored it for a moment, realized that it had been an acceptance of the name “Vick” which he’d tried to convey to me mentally, but since I was so tightly shielded, he couldn’t. And he was now asking that I open up. “Just one minute, Vick,” I said. “I’m just getting myself set for the process. Mind-talking was… pretty strange to me.”
It suddenly dawned on me that I could possibly solve two problems with one answer — find out if he could be an ally, and verify — for my own relative peace of mind — that what I had experienced was, in fact, real, and not a delusion. I took a deep breath and then sent out a mental question. I don’t hear anything from external thoughts in here. Would that be true outside, or is this a one-way shield?
Both ways. No one-way shielding possible from simple mechanisms. Intelligent psionics can manage such things, but not devices.
So if I was standing outside, I couldn’t hear your thoughts at all?
Correct. Not without either shutting the tank systems down, or being a powerful enough psionic to smash through the shielding — something which would be very obvious both to those you were trying to read, and to the mechanisms themselves. Now, shall we proceed?
Just a couple more questions, Vick. Is it possible that I would have been receptive to thoughts at certain points during the process, if I had been conscious? Or was this a situation where the capability would only emerge at the end?
I felt slight puzzlement and a moment of thought. Certainly possible, if you became conscious. The process is progressive and may at any point have triggered certain abilities.
All right then; you did mention originally that I would probably be unconscious for most of the procedure. Is it possible that I could have become conscious for a short period in the middle of the experiment?
Just tell me.
Vick hesitated. I felt a solidification of the shield, a feeling of great caution. Yes… yes, it is. To monitor the progress of much of the work, you must be very close to consciousness, in fact, because I must observe the behavior of your mind at many points.
From your readings, could you confirm or deny whether at any point during the process I did, indeed, gain consciousness, even for a few moments?
The R’Thann’s shield went entirely opaque; I was alone in silence as complete as that of a tomb. I was suddenly aware of how entirely at his mercy I was; this machine could be a tomb for me, if he wanted. What seemed like many minutes crawled by sluggishly. Then, You believe you did awaken at some point, and you want me to verify it. Is this correct?
No point in performing a triple orbit when I could just come straight in. Yes. If there were no points during the time you performed the procedure that you might have been distracted, then I would presume you would already know.
Let us assume that, in fact, there is evidence you may have reached a state of consciousness at a point in the procedure.
Now here was where things were really going to get interesting. If I were to say that I overheard a conversation between you and the Prime Monitor during that time, would that also be possible?
Very warily, Possible.
If such a conversation had taken place, would it be possible to reasonably characterize that conversation as… heated?
His shield was so tight that literally nothing leaked through this time except the word-thought. If it was…?
If it was, I would be curious as to whether your reluctance stemmed from purely scientific caution, or whether you actually concerned yourself with my welfare.
A long pause. Few are the things that are, in themselves, worthwhile. The essence of a thinking being is one of them. I would not destroy one lightly, especially one who has passed his Testing as you have. The word “Testing” carried with it a thousand overtones that I couldn’t sort out — it seemed as fraught with import and emotion for Sooovickalassa as the word “Fall” would have for me. I have seen many destroyed of late.
Is it possible to show to someone something you perceived while receiving such thoughts as I would have been in this theoretical state?
Can such things be fabricated — that is, if I were to show you something I had perceived, could I be lying?
I felt him think for a moment. Yes, and also no, he answered finally. It is difficult, but possible, for a skilled telepath to project a sensation that they did not, actually, perceive. However, this requires great skill and practice. You have — for several reasons — considerable inherent talent and some instinctive skill, but it is quite impossible for you to be creating convincing fabrications now, or at any time in the near future.
I hesitated. But I’d come this far, and, now that I’d done enough of this telepathic interchange, I realized that the chances that I could conceal a secret from Vick during long and careful examination and experimentation were very low anyway. Time to find out whether the pistol’s charged or not. Then let me pass from theory to fact. I would like to have your opinion on something I perceived for a moment during the process. It has been very upsetting to me and I need someone to verify what I think I saw.
Now I felt a real flicker of worry that momentarily flared through the shield. But there was also curiosity, and perhaps something else lurking in the background. Very well. Show me.
I carefully focused on that day, and then released at full force the impressions I’d gotten in that single splintered moment when Shagrath’s rage had screamed silently in my head.
The R’Thann’s mind vanished immediately. I knew he must have disconnected, and when no corresponding release came for me, I began to panic. He must be calling Shagrath. I tried to move, but there wasn’t a millimeter’s give in this comfortable multiton prison. Discipline was again my only comfort; I slowed my breathing, which had begun to go ragged as I felt the walls of this high-tech tomb closing in on me, and methodically stepped my way, this time, through each of the Visions and Centers. There wasn’t anything else I could do; my newly-created psi abilities were contained, and even if I could manage to activate them, I didn’t know enough about the designs to know how I could safely inactivate or unlock the chamber.
Then I felt the presence return. I must apologize. My reaction to that… impression was sufficient to cause the system to interpret it as my being under some form of attack and ejected me from the system. Fortunate for us both, I think, that I had inactivated the external alerts when our conversation proceeded to certain subjects. That was the mind of Shagrath?
Inexpressible relief washed through me. Yes. I know so little of these things — I thought perhaps that was just a matter of seeing the base impulses within someone.
An impression of a violent gesture of negation. Such impulses are intertwined with what we are, true, but they are thus of necessity always accompanied by controlling impulses, unless released. The fact that I did not die in that instant shows that the latter is not the case. Thoughts flying back and forth in his mind, too fast to follow. I had suspected something was wrong, based on certain facts which my studies on psi abilities had shown me, but I had no actual evidence to show that it was Shagrath who was the problem. And this is, of course, only evidence to another psionic, which is utterly useless in your crippled Empire.
I couldn’t restrain my inherent reaction. What do you mean, “crippled”? We’re the most powerful force in the Galaxy, as far as I know.
In terms of technological power and resources, yes. But as Shagrath’s stated purpose in the project already emphasizes, you are severely crippled against forces which use psi. And that is a much larger factor than you currently comprehend. A waving of a mental hand. Irrelevant now. We have already been fortunate that he did not sense the truth. There is no possibility that he will not be able to do so later in the project. Part of your training will involve sparring with another psionic, and obviously he is one of the foremost trainers in this area. So far you have managed to avoid detection partly due to great luck, and partly due to the templates and built-in reactions constructed in your mind during the process.
Templates? What do you mean?
Vick explained that a normal psi grew up with the abilities, had them develop within them naturally, and in most species was raised with people who would help him learn how to control and direct them. This usually happened during the species’ growth, during their equivalent of adolescence. As I was well past adolescence (though, due to life-extension therapy, not all that far past it) and had lacked both power and education in the field for my entire life, he had felt it appropriate to impress some equivalents upon my instinctive and biological reactions. This he did based both on his studies of human psi powers and on his extensive knowledge of R’Thann abilities. Some of those, he continued, may turn out to be the most useful of any you have gained. I was unsure earlier as to whether any of that would transfer successfully or not, but it appears that it will, and does. I look forward to observing how much of it really functions; how well will an alien soul learn the Way of the R’Thann?
Scientific curiosity is rather damped in me at the moment, due to a concern that Shagrath seems certain to discover I know what he is. That triggered a ripple of something that could only be amusement. It suddenly occurred to me that there was a different feel to his mind than my own, yet it felt oddly familiar… similar to that cool, alien presence that had appeared on occasion to force/guide my use of certain abilities. That’s your “templates”, isn’t it?
An affirmation. Correct. The ones most strongly derived from my people. You should be aware, however, that they would do you little good without your own inherent discipline. That was clearly what saved you from the Zchorada attack.
Nice to know they were of use. But you say I won’t be able to fool Shagrath, even with practice?
Grimness. We would truly be fools to think we could. Perhaps with a very large amount of practice. But we have no knowledge, even, of exactly what he is, the full extent of his powers, his actual age and experience, or what talents he may possess that we have never encountered before. Once the two of you meet mind-to-mind in some conflict, he will know what you are hiding, or at the least that you are hiding something… and he will then make sure he knows what that something is.
Torline’s SWORDS! Then it looks like my only hope is to escape. Really fast.
The R’thann scientist seemed to laugh humorlessly. Escape? From the most secure facility in your Empire? When all that Shagrath needs to do is say something about you being a psi in order to turn every word you say to dust? You have no vessel of your own, no allies save myself within thousands of light-years, and — at a generous estimate — would at best have perhaps ten to twelve hours between even the most clever attempt at escape and the sounding of the alarm. Sooovickalassa was thinking furiously. No… escape, at least of the simple sort, is not possible.
I was at a loss. I couldn’t just submit meekly to the testing until such time as I had to face Shagrath and then get shot or brain blasted or however he decided to finish me off. But what Vick said made too much sense. At first I’d wanted to respond that I did have other allies, like Taelin and his family… but I remembered that cold look in Taelin’s eyes when he mentioned what might happen if he had thought I was actually a psi. Maybe I would be able to talk to Taelin, under the right circumstances, but the instinctive reaction from him or anyone else would be to shoot me or turn me in. Then what in the name of the Fall can I do? There has to be something. There has to be. Sinking hells, I’m Mada, Navy, I swore to serve the Empire to my death, I can’t just sit here and let that monster destroy it, or worse, somehow make me help him do it!
For long minutes, Vick said nothing, either vocally or mind-to-mind, and I had nothing more to say.
Then, quietly, his mindvoice spoke again. There is a way.
There is? Tell me!
It is of course dangerous. And in a way, far worse than dangerous for you.
I grimaced at that. How can it be “more than dangerous”?
It will demand a great deal from you that no other course of action would. I could feel cold calculation combined with a sense of grim certainty; whatever it was, Vick knew it would be hard, but felt it was the only way.
What will it demand?
Suddenly, I saw into the R’Thann’s mind. A flicker, that he permitted me, to make me understand what he was. The Testing, yes, a species that saw every aspect of life as a test for worthiness; a mind that was undoubtedly smarter than mine, larger, coldly calculating yet filled with a resolve of purpose that made my dedication to the Empire look positively weak by comparison — though I could not quite make out the entirety of his purpose. What I could see, though, was that he was at that moment being deadly honest with me. It demands that you place everything — your life, your mind, and your very soul — in my hands. Willingly. Without reservation, without fight, without any control whatsoever over what I will have to do. And even then, I have no absolute guarantees. I will still be the weak point, one who could at any time give you away.
I took a deep breath. Tell me what I have to do.
He did, and as he explained I realized — with a sick shock of absolute conviction — that he was completely right. This really was the only way I’d ever escape. But that I would never know if it succeeded until it was all over. I realized Vick had stopped explaining long minutes before. My mouth was dry and I felt my stomach trying to rebel against the very thought of what was being asked of me. Trust him? He was an exile who was working with people who might soon be making war on his own species! But I remembered Diorre, and Taelin, and even Zakhla, and how those were just three faces of the countless trillions that made up the Empire. Did I have the courage of my oath, to face something that terrified me — that I’d already fought so hard to avoid? THIS is your Test, a cold alien thought whispered through me, but not from Vick; this was from whatever part of his people he’d made a part of me. It was a part of me, too. I didn’t know or understand their philosophy, but that essential question made sense. Sometimes it’s a single choice that defines who and what you are, and that’s the Test.
I swallowed, feeling painful dryness in my throat. All right. By the Seven Towers, let that be the right decision. How long will this take?
Either it will be done by the end of the next few testing sessions — before you begin training with Shagrath — or it will never be done well enough. So… soon. Then, with a sincere feeling of empathy which, more than anything else, convinced me that I had, indeed, chosen well: And I thank you, Commander Sasham Varan of the Imperial Mada, for placing this trust in me. By the Choice of the Past and the Testing of the Present and the Ascension, I promise that I shall prove worthy of that trust… a trust that I, perhaps, might not have been able to give myself. I felt odd adjustments starting in the screening field around me. So … we begin.